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Tea is more than just a beverage. The pursuit of tea has shaped cultures and economies around the world.
But Chai, a board game by Dan and Connie Kazmaier, doesn’t really explore the economic side of tea. It’s just a cozy game about being a tea merchant.
In Chai, up to five tea merchants craft special-teas to fulfill customer orders, competing with their fellow tea specialists to make the most money. A game plays in about 30-60 minutes (depending on the number of players) and is appropriate for ages 8 and up.
How to Play
Each player first chooses a tea type (black, green, white, oolong, or rooibos). Create a customer deck using only the tea types in play for this session, then set up the flavor market, pantry board, ability cards, teacups, money board, and tip tokens.
On your turn, you must choose between visiting the market, visiting the pantry, or reserving a customer (and using a special ability). At the end of your turn, you may fulfill a tea order, if possible.
Visit the Market
Purchase tea flavor tiles at the market, which is reminiscent of a sliding-tile puzzle. You receive income when you announce you’re going to the market, but you must spend at least one coin.
Buy sets of matching tiles that touch in a row or a column, for the price of the most expensive tile in that group. After removing the tile(s) you bought, slide the rows down to fill the empty space. You may keep buying flavor tiles as long as you have money to pay for them, but the market board doesn’t refill until the end of your turn.
Visit the Pantry
You don’t have to pay coins for pantry tokens. Simply take three (from the pantry board, blindly from the bag, or a combination of both).
Most customer orders will require flavor tiles and pantry tokens, so plan carefully!
Reserve a Customer and Use an Ability
This third option is different. First, reserve a customer (moving them from the customer pool to the reserve area of your “tea house”) and immediately replace them with a new customer from the deck. Then you may use one of the three available Ability cards.
Most ability cards help you fill orders, with discounts, free ingredients, or the ability to swap with ingredients you already have. But a few abilities are all about the money, like the one that guarantees you a high tip if you can fulfill a customer order immediately this turn.
Fulfill an Order
After taking your primary action, you may also fulfill one order: either from the customer pool or a reserved customer in your tea house.
To fulfill an order, you need all the ingredients shown on the customer card, plus the base tea token matching that customer type. (If it is not your tea type, buy one from the player who owns that tea type, for one coin. That player can’t refuse to sell you a tea token.)
Place all the ingredients and the tea token into an available teacup, then flip the tip token by that cup and take your tip. Place the customer card face-down in the “fulfilled” area of your tea house.
Rounds and Game End
Chai is played over five rounds. Each round ends when the last tip token is flipped. Start a new round after a quick refresh of the flavor market and replacing one ability card. The next player in turn order then takes their turn.
When a player flips the final tip token of the fifth round, game end is triggered. Keep playing until everyone has had the same number of turns. Players can still fulfill orders, but will not get any more tips.
Once all players have had an equal number of turns, add up the points on fulfilled customers and remaining money. In games with more than two players, also add the number of different kinds of base tea represented on your fulfilled orders.
Who will be the best – and wealthiest – tea merchant?
The graphic design in Chai is cozy and inviting. The cards and the layout makes me want to drink tea. Every time. We received the deluxe version for this review, but even in the retail version, the plastic flavor tiles and cardboard pantry tokens beg to be admired.
The customer cards are full of little references. I can’t help but comment on them as I set up the customer deck at the beginning of each play.
One of our favorite elements of Chai is the puzzle presented by the flavor market. It’s satisfying to work it out to get as many flavor tiles as possible – but you need more than just flavor tiles for most customer orders. It’s easy to let this puzzle become a distraction from the larger game.
Tea for a Crowd, not Tea for Two
I like Chai best at the larger player counts. It’s fine at two players, but not relaxing. You have to be tightly tactical, always protecting what you have and denying the other player their desires.
With more players, planning ahead is hard, due to the changing nature of the flavor market, the pantry, and the customer pool. You’ll need to make choices that give you flexibility and enjoy serving customers the best tea you can (while making good use of that ability to reserve a customer!)
What keeps Chai light at these higher player counts is that there are no “punishing” moments. The worst that could happen is that another player grabs a customer or ingredients before you can get to them. But there’s always more to try, next time.
There is also a solo mode, with three options (no opponent, automated opponent, dice-driven opponent). These are fine, but I’d only recommend them if you already love playing the game at two players.
There will soon be a two-player specific game in the Chai series, Tea for Two, available later this year.
Oolong Time for Families
Chai is family friendly. There is no reading required and the rulebook gives some recommendations to simplify for younger players.
But before you play Chai with your children, you’ll need to answer two questions:
- Can my children deal with changing goals or approaches mid-game?
- Can a theme of “selling tea” keep their attention for up to an hour?
That second question, of theme, mattered a lot for our family. I love the way everything comes together in Chai to craft the perfect tea, but none of our children were interested in playing “tea merchant” for more than a few minutes.
I think I will often reach for Chai when playing with our adult family. It’s perfect for a relaxing play while we talk together, and our kids won’t spill it like they might with a real cup of tea.
Find Chai on Amazon, directly from Steeped Games, or at your local game store.
The Family Gamers received a copy of Chai from Steeped Games for this review. Pictures reflect the deluxe edition of the game.
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